The winds of change are in the air for the Cyrus family. In the blink of a liquid-lined eye, young Noah has gone from a mini–Hannah Montana to singing questionably precocious one-night-stand anthems. (“NC-17,” warns the beginning of the video for her current hit “Stay Together,” not an allusion to the content so much as the performatively scandalous fact she is only 17.) Not to be outdone, Billy Ray Cyrus, the clan’s patriarch, recently announced that he is changing his name — to just “Cyrus.” He’s given us several months of advance warning as to the exact date when this artistic metamorphosis will take place. “After August 25,” he told Rolling Stone, with an endearingly slippery grasp of how often people say his name in 2017, “I will be the artist formerly known as Billy Ray. … I’m going to the hospital where I was born in Bellefonte, Kentucky, and legally changing my name.”
And in a Billboard cover story last week, Miley revealed that her forthcoming album would eschew the pop and hip-hop influences of Bangerz and (blessedly) the dorm-room lava lamp aesthetic of her Flaming Lips–assisted release Miley Cyrus and her Dead Petz. She was going back to her country roots and reinventing herself as a twangy singer-songwriter, she declared, with only two different hair colors and nary a speck of glitter in sight. So committed to her new identity, she exclaimed, “I haven’t smoked weed in three weeks.” Willie Nelson, somewhere, raised an eyebrow.
There is, of course, a glaring amount of privilege involved in transforming oneself so blithely, especially when that transformation is a famous white woman flinging off the signifiers of hip-hop culture like last season’s wardrobe. (Critics took issue with some comments Cyrus made about rap music in the Billboard article and, as you do in 2017, she took to Instagram to “clarify” them without saying anything much at all.) Still, those who have been paying attention to Cyrus for the past few years (or who have watched any of the videos in her excellent “Backyard Sessions” series) know that this particular pivot was more of an inevitability than a whim. Cyrus’s voice is in some ways more suited for rock, folk, and country than the smoother, more synthetic surfaces of modern pop. The proof, up until now, has largely been in her covers: She does a hell of a “Jolene,” she held her own singing the Replacements’ “Androgynous” with Joan Jett and Laura Jane Grace, and she surprised cynics with a sultry rendition of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” on Saturday Night Live’s 40th Anniversary show. And Thursday, we finally got to hear what singer-songwriter Miley sounds like performing one of her own songs, the new single “Malibu.”
As she explained in Billboard, this new, gentler aesthetic is a conscious attempt to be less confrontational. “I like talking to people that don’t agree with me, but I don’t think I can do that in an aggressive way,” she said. “I don’t think those people are going to listen to me when I’m sitting there in nipple pasties, you know?” Fair enough.
“Malibu” definitely won’t offend any of the people who shielded their children’s eyes during Miley’s last tour when she wore a strap-on while dressed as a topless unicorn, but it doesn’t have an eager-to-please-the-radio desperation about it, either. “Malibu” instead has a breezy, late-summer vibe, and an antsy romanticism that’s occasionally snagged by a few WTF-worthy lyrics. (“I never went boatin’ / don’t get how they are floatin” will draw the loudest groans, but may I suggest, “You would explain the current / As I try to smile.”) “Malibu” is not exactly a country song, as you might guess from the title, but it’s still a fitting showcase for the smoky sweetness of Cyrus’s voice.
Miley has said that her new, less-polarizing identity is about “unifying” people; she boldly proclaimed to Billboard that wants to “glue this [country] back together.” “Malibu,” though pleasant, certainly won’t be the song to do it. It’s missing something. The “Teenage Dream”–esque momentum of the verses feels like the song is building toward something bigger, but its chorus is a far cry from the cathartic release of “Wrecking Ball” or the debaucherously anthemic hook of “We Can’t Stop.” Pop music, at its most universal, does have the power to unite people in moments of epic, singalong glory, but Miley’s mistake here is equating a scrubbed-clean aesthetic with mass appeal.
At best, “Malibu” is hopefully a preview of more interesting things to come. At worst, it’s a warning to avoid this incoming era of Miley Cyrus. There’s nothing about “Malibu” that really sparkles — in an attempt to go back to her roots, Miley may have washed off a little too much glitter.